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When I read the chapter in Po Bronson's Nurture Shock about the inverse power of praise, I felt like a religious convert hearing god's voice for the first time.  "Holy shit," I thought.  "That explains a lot."

As an only (biological) child of two parents who both worked in the field of mental health, I was given a lot of attention.  And so were my feelings.  Though I have quite a bit to say on THAT matter, I will refrain for the moment and summarize for your reading pleasure.  In short, I was not given ample (i.e. any) opportunity to experience the discomfort of failure or rejection.  If I received any feedback that was anything short of  "you're PERFECT!" I assumed I had majorly fucked up and proceeded to have an earth-shattering meltdown.

Fast forward to the college years and you can see how this well-meaning parenting technique had the opposite of its intended effect.  I had no coping skills for dealing with failure.  Scratch that.  I had no coping skills for dealing with ANY negative feedback.  Once, I received less than perfect marks on an essay.  I remember running to my room and crying like there had witnessed somebody die horribly.  You know the kind: sobbing, tears pouring down like snot, inhaling in gasps that resemble some kind of dinosaur.  The professor's comments on an essay were as follows:  "this is not your best work," he wrote.

I don't mean to imply that I was a total mess all the time.  I was only a total mess most of the time.  And the degree of my messiness was in direct proportion to the amount of bad news I had received.  I wasn't accepted to the competetive senior writing class.  Cried for a day.  I wasn't chosen as a candidate for a fellowship.  Cried for two days.

Fast forward again to the unemployed years.  Like I've said, I am trying my hardest to fully embrace the gift that is full-time motherhood.  But there is a particular brand of resentment that comes with not having a choice in the matter of employment.  Scanning the classifieds for a job in the middle of nowhere covers my whole psyche in a thin layer of depression.  Finding a job that moderately fits my skill set but pays like shit is a depressing icing.  Making it to the interview round of a job I didn't really want in the first place and NOT getting it is the cherry on top.  Repeat ad nauseum and life feels pretty grim.

But hey, at least I'm not crying all the time!  Hooray me!  Way to go!  I'm tops!  (Go ahead, insert your praise for me here ____________________________)

And now it's time to make a choice.  I'm tired.  Literally, I'm exhausted from feeling so sorry for myself.  So I've decided to stop waiting around for some guy to maybe see that I might be the best person for their minimum-wage position.  I've decided to start a small business in the nearest legitimate city (a mere three hours away).  As soon as I wrote the check for the deposit on my tiny (and WONDERFUL) office, I could feel my soul start to shine from behind its cloud.  This decision is empowering and frightening and risky.  And it's a perfect opportunity to reflect on my resume of rejection and finally appreciate all the practice.

Because there is a very real possibility that I will fall directly onto my face in this business venture.  I might acquire zero clientele.  I might lose a few thousand bucks that I didn't really have in the first place.  And you know what?  It's going to be okay.

So thank you, hiring official that went with the bilingual lady.  Thank you, ice queen, for helping me learn my own limits of tolerance.   Thank you, professor who recognized that I could do better.  Thank you, little M and D, for giving me two absolutely suitable reasons for keeping well away from the workforce.  Thank you, Po Bronson, for the epiphany.  And thank you, Mom and Dad (and steps!) for doing the best you knew how to do.  Truly. I know now that life is a spectrum, and that staying on the end that reads "you're perfect!" would be a rather boring life, indeed.  Boring AND impossible.

So here I go, diving into the deep, opaque waters of the unknown.  Maybe I'll swim gracefully, maybe I'll doggy paddle, but what I sure as hell won't do is drown.  Even if I fail, I will.  Not.  Drown.  I'm taking a deep breath now.  And I'm jumping in.

 
 
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Dear A,

You have been a most wonderful and supportive husband, but I thought you should know that I’ve recently developed feelings for another man.  He’s witty and tall and adventurous.  He’s empathetic, self-deprecating, and smart as hell.  He’s also... how do I say this delicately?... published.

Oh, John Steinbeck, if I had only known the real you back in tenth grade!  Perhaps those long, dull nights alone in bed with Of Mice And Men wouldn’t have felt quite so... forced.  Because even though I rather liked that text, I would have never known, would have never GUESSED that your charms would eventually overwhelm me.  I didn’t even know you had charms.

But then, years later,  when I was pregnant with my first son I decided to bear down and get some literature under my belt.  I figured I’d never have time with a rug rat under foot, and what sort of mother should ever have to confess to her offspring that she hasn’t actually read Grapes of Wrath?  Whether you knew it or not, you taught me some good parenting tricks with that one, Johnny.  Kids eating peaches till they get the skitters?  That’s hungry all right.  Thanks to your heart-breaking account of human suffering, I learned how to tell my kids that they can either eat that spinach quiche or they can march themselves straight to bed.  So thanks for that.

It wasn’t until I’d had two children (who were finally asleep) that I opened Travels with Charley. By the end of the first paragraph I was salivating.  By the end of the first page, I was fantasizing.  By the end of the first chapter, I was totally in love.  


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I felt that you were really opening up to me with your first-person narrative.  So coy!  You offer years and years of fiction and then suddenly a personal non-fiction account of your cross-country road trip?  You’re a tease, John, you really are.  Thanks to Travels with Charley, I can say with confidence that I* know the real you. I know every detail of your campervan, your laundry bucket, and your drinking habits.  I know what’s in your garage (junk!) and the name of your boat (Fayre Eleyne, after your wife, but no matter).  I know all about that long lonely night in Maine.

So back to you, A, my dearest love.  I have a proposition for you.  If you can find it in your heart to stay with a distracted woman; if you can continue to tolerate my profanity, eccentricity, impatience, grumpiness, criticism, and overall negativity; if you can refrain for another lifetime or so from running screaming from the home we share; if you can make some room for my new friend Mr. Steinbeck, well, then I think we have a shot at making it.

Al(most all) my love,

-your S

*(and anyone else with an Amazon account)


 
 
Dear Tina Fey,
I'm funny as hell.  Can I have a job please?
Thanks a million,
Super Sarah
 
 
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When I first spotted Amanda Todd’s video posted on an anti-bullying website, I thought her to be an exceptionally brave young woman.  If you’re unfamiliar with her story, she’ll tell you about it herself.  In a nine-minute You-Tube video that starts with “Hi!”  (the exclamation point is dotted with a heart) and ends with a gruesome tale of heartlessness, cyber-stalking, assault, anxiety, and depression, Amanda Todd will, via a series of flashcards, chronicle her long journey of abuse.

It was only after I had watched the video that I learned she had committed suicide, and I was beside myself.  I was devastated.  How could...?  But where was...?  If only there were...?  Who the hell...?  And that’s the one that stuck:  who the hell would let their children torment another human being in such a way?  Where were her perpetrator's MOTHERS for crying out loud?

My husband, A., thinks that they, the mothers, probably didn’t know what their kids were doing.  “Ignorance and indifference are totally different,” he reminded me.  And he’s right.  It’s one thing to know that your child is essentially murdering another child  through cyber-bullying and proceed to ignore it, it’s quite another to not know about the cyber-bullying at all.  (The comments these kids left when they found out Amanda had survived an attempted suicide were the kinds of things you would hear in a civil war; they spoke to her as if she were sub-human, as if she somehow deserved verbal, emotional, physical abuse, and even death.  DEATH!  To be fair, this is her version of the story.  But even if she’s exaggerated the details, she has clearly been the victim of repeated crimes.)  Perhaps some mothers fall somewhere in between:  they know their children are participating in unsavory ways in online conversations, but assume these contributions are harmless?  This seems even worse than complete ignorance or complete indifference.

So where does that leave us mothers? Do we disallow the use of technology unless it can be carefully monitored?  Do we then closely monitor our kids even as they become pubescent and confusing and dependent on access to private space? Or do we think bigger?  This morning  I woke up and told my three-year-old this story:

Sarah: Yesterday I found out that a girl named Amanda Todd died.
M:  That’s a silly name.
Sarah:  Why is it a silly name?
M:  Why is that her name?
Sarah:  That’s the name her mommy gave her, just like M is the name I gave you and D is the name we gave your little brother.
M:  Oh, okay.
Sarah:  So this girl Amanda died.  I feel very sad about it and I want to teach you something.
M:  Why did she die?
Sarah:  That’s the story I’m going to tell you.  See, Amanda made some bad choices.  Do you ever make bad choices?  Like when you whine and cry instead of just asking politely?
M:  (hesitantly) Um, yes.
Sarah:  Right, you make bad choices sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.  Mommys make bad choices sometimes. EVERYBODY makes bad choices sometimes.  As long as we’re not hurting other people, it’s okay to make bad choices sometimes.  It doesn’t mean we’re bad people.
M:  Okay.
Sarah:  So this girl Amanda made some bad choices and the kids she went to school with were REALLY mean to her because she made some bad choices.  Now, if somebody makes a bad choice and it hurts you, it’s okay to tell that person that you don’t like what they’re doing.  Is it mean to say “I don’t like that, please stop”?
M:  No...?
Sarah:  Right, that’s not mean.  Is it mean to say, “I don’t like you, you’re not my friend, you’re not a good person.”
M:  Yes, that’s mean.
Sarah:  Right, that IS mean.  We wouldn’t say those mean things to our friends.  It’s okay to tell somebody that you don’t like what they’re doing.  It’s okay to ask them to stop.  But it’s not okay to be mean just because somebody made some bad choices.
M:  So why did she die?
Sarah:  So Amanda felt so sad that these people had been mean to her that she died.  Her heart hurt so much that she died.
M:  Oh.  I don’t want to die.
Sarah:  No, of course not.  Well, everybody dies at some point, but usually we get old first.  Amanda was still a kid and she died because people were mean to her and she felt really, really sad.  I want you to know that it’s NOT okay to be mean to people just to make them sad.  Do you understand?
M:  Yes, Mommy.  Will you tell me that story again?

I did.  And then I did again.  And it made me feel better.  And (I think) it introduced something simple but profound to M in a way that he could digest. As despondent as Amanda Todd’s death makes me feel about the state of our connection to our own humanity, I felt better teaching my son the basics of decent versus indecent behavior.  I hope other parents take a cue and talk to their children, young as they may be, about the same topic.  By the time they need to apply the lesson they’re already out of your sphere of influence.  

Let’s teach our kids early how to recognize and respond to the emotions of others. Let’s raise a generation of kids who are NOT perpetrators of these cyber crimes.  Let’s not shy away from this because it’s ambitious and sticky and difficult.  Because while it is all those things, it is also imperative.  Let’s do this together. Let’s do it for Amanda.


 
 
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Time stopped when I saw the green minivan parked across the street.  Time ALWAYS stops when I see a green minivan because for a flash of an instant I wonder if I'm about to see her, the ice queen.  It only takes a millisecond after these green van sightings for me to take a breath and remember that she is no longer my "boss." (She never really was, technically speaking, even two long years ago when we worked/ didn't really ever WORK together.)  It's also become clear that not every green minivan is owned by the bitch in question.

We had just pulled up to the parking lot at the Children's Museum and both boys were asleep in the back seat.  I got out, stretched, and sat in a patch of dappled sun.  It was a perfect fall day:  cool in the shade, warm in the sun.  That was when I saw the uncomfortably familiar vehicle parked across the street at the plant nursery.  Oh shit.  It had a skybox.  It could most possibly be her.

I took a breath.  I putzed with my cell phone.  I checked on the boys.  I kept an eagle eye on the green van.  On second look, it seemed more silver than green.  Besides, what would the ice queen be doing down in this town, anyway?  It was possible that it belonged to her, but probable that it belonged to someone else.

But then she appeared, holding her daughter as any mother holds a child (i.e. not in a particularly bitchy way) and dropping off a wagon in the front of the store before disappearing back inside.  My heart thumped, thumped, thumped, thumped.  I could feel each beat distinctly, powerfully.  The moments were amplified by the sound of my own blood pounding through my own ears.  I couldn't tell if it was the coffee or the adrenaline or some combination therein, but I had to take a shit and I had to do it soon.

Now I started using my phone as a phone, calling the short list of trusted friends and family who had seen the slow collapse of my emotional stability as I survived the ice queen's verbal beating upon verbal beating.  I thought about the people who would understand the intensity of the present situation and who would have the sensitivity to know the right thing to advise.

Because the more I grow up, the more I learn that it's not always a great idea to make decisions while I'm hot.  (Ask my mother; she probably knew this to be true by my third birthday.)  On one hand, I didn't want to pass up a rare opportunity to stand up for myself.  The ice queen had silenced me once with those icy tentacles, and I was eager to empower myself by finally responding to her... albeit two years later.  These are the lines I came up with:

"Hi!  Just wanted you to know you're still the most evil bitch I've ever met!" 
OR
"Hi!  You look awful!  I still hate you!"

I'm not proud, okay, but that's the best I could do.  I called my friend who was escaping from an emotionally-abusive romantic relationship at the same time I was escaping from my emotionally-abusive professional situation.  She helped pull me out of my hole and I helped pull her out of hers.  She wasn't home. 

I called my friend who just moved out of state.  She knew everything about me and was level-headed.  She didn't answer.

I called both my mom and my mother-in-law.  Nothing.

I called my sister.  I called my friend who knows the ice queen professionally and has expressed retroactive sympathy for the abuse I suffered.  I called my other sister.  No answer. No answer. No answer.

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What the WHAT?!  If I were religious I probably would have prayed, but instead I thought about the Dexter episode we'd watched the night before:  Dexter, the serial killer with a heart of gold, was struggling with his own interntal lightness and darkness.  As Dexter comforts his dying friend, the criminal-turned-believer Brother Sam (who had not only turned around his own life, but who had helped other ex-cons by giving them jobs at his auto repair shop), Dexter confesses that he knows Brother Sam's shooter and that he's going to make the shooter pay.  "No," says Brother Sam.  "You must forgive him," he says before he dies.  Dexter, struggling with making the quote unquote right choice, invites the shooter for a walk on the beach.  He is clearly trying to fulfill Brother Sam's last wish.  He tells the shooter that he knows the truth and that he, the shooter, should turn himself in to the police.  The shooter laughs arrogantly, claiming it's his word against Dexter's.  He is not at all upset by having killed a good man.  And so Dexter snaps.  He gives in to his darkness and drowns the guy.

Let me be clear:  I didn't want to KILL the ice queen, but I was struggling with my own dark and light responses to her.  The trouble was that I didn't know which was which.  If I said something would I regret having instigated something (anything) with a she-devil?  If I said nothing would I regret having been passive and weak?  What was the "right" thing to do?  What the hell WOULD Jesus do?

In the end, I decided to sit back and glare.  I did find it in my heart to flip her off as she turned onto the main road; this expression of quiet anger felt remarkably appropriate.  As she drove away, Baby D woke up.  I said a silent thank you for having somewhere along the way transformed into the kind of mother/ kind of person who doesn't have to make a scene.  I felt like a grownup and my heart began to beat normally.  

I considered how I could schedule meditation into my weekly routine, brought the boys into the museum, and went on with my day.

And I think that's a good thing.

 
 

A List of Things I Love About Living in a Small Town

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1.  When we leave our Cannondale bike out on the front porch, it's still there when we come home.

2.  Halloween parades.  Okay, so it wasn't really an organized parade, but there were volunteers and sheriffs in reflective gear keeping cars from driving through the blocked-off trick-or-treating neighborhood.

3.  Ducking in to a friend's house during said parade so as to quietly breastfeed Mr. D. It's not that I'm embarrassed of whipping out the boob, it's that I don't want my costume to be mistaken for a SEXY Dorothy.

4.  The grocery store guy ALWAYS says hi to me like we actually know each other.  I don't know his name; he doesn't know mine.  But when I've secretly been shopping at Trader Joe's down in the city instead of our local supermarket, the grocery store guy says, "Hi, there!  It's been a while!"  For that matter, we are on a first-name basis with our mail lady and are always happy to run into her at local events such as weddings and Halloween parades.


5.  We can walk to the library.

6.  If we're late somewhere, we can never (really, ever) blame traffic.  Our county has one stop light.

7.  Our local paper boasts a sheriff's log that, I swear to god, reads as follows:  Two dogs were loose on Bird Road.  There was a neighbor dispute in Jasper.  A bear was seen on Jefferson Street. A drug violation was reported from Highway 238.

8.  The health food store sells these chocolate (okay okay, they're CAROB) malt balls that has converted me to carob. I cannot get enough.  Perhaps these kinds of amenities are available in more populated places, but I'd like to pretend they're endemic to my locale. 

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9.  People are impressed that our house has insulation, windows, and a general air of sturdiness.  More common around here are add-a-shacks where people keep adding rooms to their existing trailers as they can afford construction materials.  I know this is snooty, but sometimes my house makes me feel like a queen.

10.  We can tell our uber young son to "go play" and mean it.  He stays in the yard and I can duck inside and finish dinner (or, who are we kidding?  I can finish blarfing) without worrying a'tall.

How bout THEM apples?  Keepin' on the sunny side!